The Morvan region (wmorvan.com) lies in the middle of Burgundy between the valleys of the Loire and the Saône, stretching roughly from Clamecy, Vézelay and Avallon in the north to Autun in the south. It’s a land of wooded hills and, with poor soil and pastures only good for a few cattle, villages and farms are few and far between. In the nineteenth century, supplying firewood and charcoal to Paris was the main business and large tracts of hillside are still covered in coniferous plantations. Wet nursing was also an important part of the economy, with local peasant women leaving their homes and families to feed the children of the French aristocracy and Parisian bourgeoisie, a practice that continued well into the twentieth century.
The World War II Occupation was felt profoundly in the Morvan, firstly because it was stripped of its machinery, equipment and forestry products; and secondly because it became a centre for the Resistance. As a result the locals suffered terribly from reprisals and forced labour programmes.
Carpeted with forest and etched by cascading streams, the Parc Régional du Morvan was officially created in 1970, when 170,000 hectares of hilly countryside were set aside in an attempt to protect the local cultural and physical environment with a series of nature trails, animal reserves, museums and local craft shops. It’s an excellent place for outdoor activities, especially cycling and walking, with a good network of simple accommodation.
The creation of the parc régional did something to promote the area as a place for outdoor activities, but it was the election of François Mitterrand, local politician and former mayor of Château-Chinon, as president of the Republic that rescued the Morvan from oblivion. In addition to lending it some of the glamour of his office, he took concrete steps to beef up the local economy. West of the Morvan, the landscape softens as it descends towards the River Loire and the fine medieval town of Nevers, on Burgundy’s western border.